Scroll of sound

Pub date October 5, 2010

MUSIC One of the singular ironies among the speedy online dissemination of sounds has to be the rediscovery of so many 1960s- and ’70s-era women singer-songwriters who came, sang, and seemingly disappeared in the wake of Joni, Judy, and Joan. Singular among Judee Sill, Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton, and those other ladies of the canyon is Linda Perhacs, the maker of Parallelograms, an achingly beautiful ode to nature and an all-too-brief testament to one young woman’s life, first released on Kapp in 1970 and most recently re-released in 2008 by Sunbeam.

From the start, psychedelic and folk-rock aficionados have been swept away by Parallelograms‘ opener "Chimacum Rain," as Perhacs’ overdubbed harmonies pour down like a sweet shower in the Olympic Peninsula while she tenderly pieces out, "I’m spacing out, I’m seeing/ Silences between leaves." But the title track is the heart of the album. A child of both Joni Mitchell and Free Design, with its jazzy washes of atonal color, circling Celtic guitar figure, and exploratory electronic effects, "Parallelograms" is a genuinely haunting masterpiece of experimental psychedelia — a future-folk madrigal that has inspired artists as disparate as Daft Punk (which used her "If You Were My Man" demo in 2007’s Electroma) and Devendra Banhart (who sang with Perhacs on "Freely," from 2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon).

It’s a recording informed by the natural world of Perhacs, born Linda Jean Arnold in Southern California, raised among the the redwoods of Mill Valley, and relocated once more to Topanga Canyon as a young dental hygienist. By day, she’d work on the teeth of the famous and talented in Beverly Hills, and on the weekend, she and her husband, artist Les Perhacs, would venture into the "very raw wilderness" of Big Sur, Mendocino, and Alaska, she tells me today from LA, where she continues to apply her healing powers to celebrated smiles. "I’d walk the beaches in Baja, California, or the Sea of Cortez, Canada or the Pacific Northwest. I’d spend a lot of time alone walking — that’s when I started to write songs. It just seemed to come naturally in the middle of such beauty. I was just describing what I was seeing."

That vision — and its sonic incarnation — was recognized by Oscar-winning film composer Leonard Rosenman, a patient who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg and befriended Perhacs. Once he heard her rough demo and saw her "scroll" — her sketchlike notation for the song "Parallelograms," which she saw as a "moving sound sound-sculpture" — Rosenman decided he had to record her. "He said, ‘I could live a lifetime and only come up with two ideas this good,’" recalls Perhacs. The composer gave Universal Records a demo of two of her more conventional songs, secured funding, and assembled such ace players as guitarist Steve Cohn and percussionists Shelley Mann and Milt Holland to play on the LP, telling Perhacs, "If you see the executives from Universal walking in with suits, switch to another song because they’ll never understand this piece." In Perhacs’ words, "He supported me, but let the creativity of a young person come through."

Perhacs’ rare vision continues to shine through, though she never tried to replicate Parallelograms‘ many-layered vocals and effects live until recently. In fact, her forthcoming San Francisco Art Institute concert of new material — and a few songs from the 1970 classic, she promises — is only her third public performance. Rather, after making her powerful, influential sole disc, life — and spirit — called Perhacs, who passionately holds forth on theosophist Annie Besant’s thought forms (which find a place in Perhacs’ SFIAF concert), Paramahansa Yogananda, and Sister Josefa Mendez’s unabridged The Way of Divine Love.

"I’m a trained nurse," explains the songwriter, who remembers making music at age 5. "I know this stuff isn’t good for people. I know I lost a bunch of close friends in the ’70s. "Paper Mountain Man" — we lost him at 33. He was being a space pilot with his mind, and we lost him. I knew the dangers, and I knew from working on entertainment personalities in Beverly Hills. I didn’t want that world. I knew it would have an effect on an unformed personality. My sense of caution told me, ‘Do not go on the road and try to live that kind of life.’ My sense of inner balance told me, ‘Keep your balance.’"

The lack of label promotion and the first pressing of Parallelograms, badly remixed for AM radio, discouraged Perhacs from pursuing music further, until a 2003 visit by Wild Places’ Michael Piper, who first reissued the album on CD using the original LP. Shortly before his visit, Perhacs had almost died of pneumonia, but she soon discovered that her album had found a second life, too: "I was really weak when this guy got a hold of me and said, ‘The Internet has sent the album all over the world. I just felt guilty that you didn’t know what was going on.’" Perhacs had hung on to her own masters as well as demos she made after Parallelograms, and with Piper’s help, the original mix and never-before-heard songs like "If You Were My Man" were finally released. A vinyl version of Parallelograms as it was meant to be heard is due soon on Mexican Summer.

And Perhacs is making new music, inspired and supported by such friends and fans as We Are the World’s Aaron Robinson and Robbie Williamson, and Julia Holter, who performed with her not long ago at Red Cat in LA — a new community akin to her long-ago Topanga Canyon creative milieu. "When we had a budget it went really quickly and was very organized," she says sweetly today. "We all have straight gigs, as you call them, so it’s hard to get us all together to rehearse or record." Nevertheless, she adds, "I felt very comfortable with what I stayed with, which was spiritual pursuit. Going on the road did not feel right to me, but at this stage of my life, I don’t feel vulnerable — you could put me in the middle of a million people and I would feel solid with the choices I made."

With Julia Holter and CLoudS
Sat/9, 7 p.m., $17
San Francisco Art Institute Lecture Hall
800 Chestnut, SF